Gordon Did That

I’m sitting this morning watching the welcome mists of rain obscuring the reach of the downtown skyline and thinking about Monday night’s Celebration of Gordon Davidson at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Gordon’s tribute was staged on David Zinn’s set of Amelie, on the production’s dark night. Twinkle lights framed the proscenium, and the scenery upstage was lit with soft purples and blues, presumably repurposed from Jane Cox and Mark Barton’s lighting design by Tom Ontiveros. A ginormous projection screen hung over the stage. A 9′ grand piano, DSR,  pointed its formidable bow up left. A lecturn graced the DSL corner of the stage.

As the audience entered the theatre, Gordon’s beaming face, halo-framed by his white hair, arms akimbo over his head, fingers laced behind his neck, lay saucily on a bed of programs. His warm, intelligent eyes focus on the camera (and hence on all of us), his wry awareness of the photo set up as ego trip invited us to relax and celebrate his accomplishments with him. Splayed behind his head were programs for Angels in America, The Wedding at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, its opening production in 2004, just two of so many accomplishments. A photo posed like this of anyone other than Gordon might have seemed inflated. Throughout the evening, we were treated to a series of shots of Gordon looking directly out at us across the span of more than fifty years. We had time with each image to look deeply into Gordon’s eyes at every phase of his life. The sense of seeing Gordon and in a funny way being seen by Gordon for the last time was elegantly accomplished with the curation of these images from Gordon’s Los Angeles Theatre family album.

I hadn’t thought I’d be able to attend the event – in fact, I barely knew it was happening. Somehow, my connection has dimmed over the past decade. Had I not decided to take a hike on New Year’s Eve, I wouldn’t have known about it at all.  Besides, things are hopping at “the factory,” as I like to call my job; in the first week of the spring semester,  we’re casting eight shows- four more already in rehearsal. I didn’t think I’d be able to get there, and convinced myself that Gordon would understand given the nature of the conflict.

But then I had a dream on Saturday night that I was there when Gordon was felled, like the Sequoia tunnel tree last week by the monsoonal northern California rsequoiaains. In the dream, for some inexplicable reason, I was dangling by my finger tips from a ledge about 15 feet over the ground -in the Annex, (where we all know that the ceiling height doesn’t exceed 7′) when Gordon passed beneath me. I said something that caused him to fall to the ground, beseeching eyes looking up at me for assistance, and I, unable to release my fingers without plunging to death, failed him. It was a horrible dream, but enough to make me rearrange my schedule to be there on Monday. Gordon did that.

Gordon did that.

That was the powerful theme on Monday. Speakers, performers, singers, family members, both by blood and by practice, testified through song and poetry and performance about Gordon’s profound reach and impact on all of our lives. Playwright and performer Charlayne Woodard told about spotting Gordon’s white halo out amidst a student performance of  her first show, Pretty Fire, for a student matinee of 70 seven-year-olds and cringing that he was seeing the show in that context. Andrea Marcovicci sang a haunting song from Ghetto, with a projected image of herself thirty years prior on stage singing the same song. Echoes of our growing up with Gordon. Groener shared Gordon’s generosity in opening three rehearsal rooms in the Annex to the young Anteaus company, effectively underwriting the formation of a successful company of actors. Gordon did that.

Luis Alfaro performed a poem crafted for the CTG 35th anniversary. Luis Valdez, currently in rehearsals next door at the Annex for a revival of his 1978 hit, Zoot Suit,  recalled his early Teatro Campesino work and Gordon’s faith in its relevance to the Los Angeles audience, his invocation to write a play about the 1972 Zoot Suit riots.

When the character of El Pachuco, memorably played by Edward James Olmos, swaggered onto the Taper stage, Chicano theatre became American theatre,” explained writer/director Luis Valdez.

CTG website Article

Gordon did that.

Throughout the evening, the live testimonials were punctuated with video testimonials filmed at a New York theatre; Jack O’Brien, Robert Egan, Terrance McNally, Tony Kushner, Kathleen Chalfant and others sharing stories about collaborations with Gordon, failures and successes, but always funny, heartbreaking, quirky, goading, human, encouraging, powerful – reminding us what Gordon’s legacy to us was. Ringing through the evening was Gordon’s passion for the work, his belief in the capacity of each of us to bring our best and unique selves into the room, the artistic endeavor, the play, the theatre, the city – wherever he called upon us to go.

Several years ago, USC School of Dramatic Arts Dean Madeline Puzo brought Gordon to USC, or as we jokingly referred to ourselves, CTG South, as an uber-dramaturge to our second year MFA students in Dramatic Writing. These productions, some of my favorite in our season, are workshop productions of plays written by the students in their second of three years of the program. The production budgets are purposefully lean, to focus our attention on the development of the words rather than the technical framework for the plays. Gordon was sitting in the theatre during one of the dress rehearsals. I was there in my capacity as production manager, and felt self-conscious having Gordon in the room – found myself wanting to make sure no time was wasted. I had gotten up to intervene in a scene change to see if there might not be a more efficient way to do it, and when I came back to my seat, Gordon leaned over and said something to the effect of “It’s so great to watch you working with the students, Els.”

I don’t think any praise could have been more welcome than Gordon’s recognition of my new place of practice. That he was taking note of how I had grown up from the ASM who worked on Unfinished Stories back in 1993. Gordon did that. He had that galvanizing nurturing effect on all of us.

My favorite speaker Monday night was Mark Taper Forum Production Manager, Jonathan Lee, who spoke as a representative of the CTG Staff. Jonathan brought a prop – a thirty-year-old T-shirt from back in the day, under TD Bobby Routolo, the back of which was emblazoned with “Where the Hell is Gus!” in huge letters. Gus, as Jonathan explained, was the driver who they would commonly be waiting for during load in days. On the front breast of the T-shirt were letters so tiny that the audience had to trust Jonathan when he told us they were a quote from Gordon.

How could this have happened?

Jonathan’s reading of this quote elicited a loud laugh of recognition from many in the audience. He described how Gordon looked at you intently when he said that, and we all knew it was code for “You fucked up.” But more importantly, it was Gordon really wanting to know how it had happened, and even more crucially, wanting you to really want to know how it had happened. I remembered it keenly and personally from the reopening of the Kirk Douglas Theatre when Jonathan and I were on the roof of the theatre trying to figure out how to time the Culver City sign’s most beautiful and complete cycle exactly with the reveal of the marquee.

Gordon did that. He made us all hungry to know the better way to have done things, the better way to do things in the future. Jonathan’s speech moved me to tears – probably because he spoke of the behind-the-scenes collaborations, but also about the compassionate rigor that Gordon taught us all to bring to our practice.

The evening was capped with moving speeches from Gordon’s blood family members, his daughter Rachel speaking about how she shared her father with us, and how her father shared artistic opportunities with her as she grew up. Finally, Gordon’s widow, Judy thanked us all for coming and shared that though Gordon felt forgotten at the end, this evening had proven that he had not been forgotten.

Far from it, Judy. Gordon and his legacy live on in all of us who were in that theatre, as well as thousands who were not. When we were leaving the Ahmanson on Monday, I ran into Jim Freydberg, the producer of The Vagina Monologues, someone whom I had been thinking of earlier in the week in spite of not having seen him regularly since the show closed in late fall of 2001. I’d been thinking about Jim’s practice of having the stage manager phone him after each performance to report how the show had gone. I appreciated the intimacy of that trust bestowed on me to critically watch each show, taking note of how each moment was executed, how the audience had responded, and spend the time to recount it to him. When Jim walked up as we were about to leave the building, I told him I’d been thinking of him. Dramatically, he recoiled, saying “That can’t be good!” I laughed, then thanked him for that relationship that he’d formed with me during the show via that practice of nightly phone calls, and for his trust. Jim, in his typically modest way, eyes twinkling, said,

You know, Gordon did that.

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The Gospel at Colonus – Week 2

COLONUS ARTWeek two of rehearsals for The Gospel at Colonus has hastened the alchemy of character and scene work, familiarity with the music and blocking into a cohesive and, at the risk of jinxing it, potentially thrilling production. We are now working through the play each day, making discoveries and strengthening the telling of the Oedipus at Colonus story. Director Andi Chapman is skilled at opening doors by asking her actors the right question at the right moment in their process, and allowing their answer to be “I don’t know yet.”  I have watched a half-dozen times as the actors have listened to the question, and then thought a minute, their eyes widening in recognition. Watching Andi and the actors dissect the literal and metaphoric meanings of the script’s text has reawakened my creative intellect, reminded me again why I love being in rehearsals. The rehearsal room is (in the best circumstances) a crucible of exploration; time is taken for the important work of being and representing humans in all their heightened emotional phases – love, grief, remorse, pride, redemption. The two actors playing Oedipus, Roger Robinson, and Ellis Hall continue to raise the bar for each other – the musical text fortifying the spoken text in a powerful way. The depth of the work in the rehearsals has inspired me as well as all the others in the room, which bodes extremely well for the audience’s comprehension of the story.

Our numbers have grown, with several more talented singers joining us. Abdul Hamid Royal, our puckish and ironic Musical Director, has met and rehearsed once with the choir with another rehearsal planned this weekend. He has worked with the Choragos Quintet separately from the main rehearsals. The men in that Quintet (LaVan Davis, Otis Easter, Milton Ellis, Johnny Gilmore, and Gerald J. Mitchell) each have amazing vocal instruments and under Abdul Hamid’s direction, have blended strongly as a group.  Tomorrow we will assemble wholly for the first time, the four members of the Ismene Quartet (Jackie Gouché, Dorian Holley, Ricky Nelson and Sharletta Morgan-Harmony). If Jackie and Dorian are any indication of the level of talent of the other two, we (and you) are in for a treat.

That’s what I mean. Every day on this project has been like Christmas, or a birthday – the moments musically and dramatically unwrapping in front of our eyes.

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Madison Orgill-Rhoades, former USC student headed up the paint call at Colonus this week.
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Early moments of the load in for Colonus

Tuesday, the pieces of Ed Haynes’ set arrived in the back of a huge stake bed truck. Built by Sets-To-Go owners Mark Henderson and Tim Farmer, the set is not for the faint of heart. For the past three days, at every break and before I leave at night, I have hurried back to see the progress they have made in the load in. When I left rehearsal the first night, Andi sat next to Ed on one of the top choral platforms, overlooking the laying of the carpet on the lower stairs.

(I’ve already shown you too much. You will have to wait to see everything assembled when you come to see the show.)

Speaking of giving it away, this is a generous group. Each day, we have had several contributions of food from cast members, which makes the rehearsal room almost completely self-sustaining. We almost wouldn’t need to go out to eat, except this group likes each other and likes to eat. A combination which makes our lunch breaks very enjoyable.

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Jessica’s meta shot of her computer open to my blog….I promise it was before rehearsal began.

Tomorrow we get on stage for the first time, and will do spacing and realize in three dimensions the work we have done in the rehearsal space.  We will roll the freshly tuned piano into the theatre to support the work. Four of our five designers, Ed Haynes, Phil Allen, Naila Sanders and Karyn D.Lawrence will join us to see a stumble-through. Tom Ontiveros will join us later in the process. There is plenty left to do and plenty of time to do it before we begin tech rehearsals on June 9th.

Jessica, my PA, shared her snapchat photo with me yesterday. snapchatWhile snapchat is a younger person’s game, I am nevertheless learning how to more effectively use technology as a tool in stage management. When new actors join the company, I still will call them to touch base and make sure they have their call, but now I also  text them my contact info so that they can ingest it into their smart phones. That way they know whose call they aren’t answering…Just kidding – they are very responsible and acknowledge their calls. Though a busier group of actors I have not seen in a long time.

Now’s the time for you to book your tickets. Group sales are taking off – You can buy your Tickets to The Gospel At Colonus here. Hear’s to seeing you in the Holden for Ebony Repertory Theatre’s upcoming production.

 

Happy Days

HappyDaysBrookeAdamsThis afternoon, escaping for a few hours from the 104 degree temperatures of Pasadena, California, I had a life affirming experience in the theatre that reminded me why it has such a profound importance in my life.

In the Theatre at Boston Court, I watched this afternoon as Brooke Adams played Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” with her husband, Tony Shalhoub as Willie, in a beautiful production directed by Andrei Belgrader.

First, a disclaimer. I have a personal and historic connection with this play.  Back in high school, at the age of  seventeen or eighteen, Bob Edgar, my teacher and my theatre mentor, encouraged me to do the role of Winnie. Fellow student and friend,  Will Schwalbe, played Willie; he was sixteen or seventeen.

We  learned all 60 plus pages of lines, which was not easy, and we rehearsed the play and performed it in Memorial Hall,  a 500 seat auditorium. Who came? Can’t remember. Who decided this would be a good idea? Bob or I?  Don’t remember. How long did we rehearse? Not a clue. What was the nature of our conversation about the play when Will and I had no relevant life experience? How did we discuss the sexual innuendo in the play while knowing nothing about it? What were we all thinking?!

I remember learning by failing – how weak and reedy my voice was, what it took  to sustain what was basically a  monologue while buried up to my waist or neck in a mound of dirt. It took vocal variety, which I did not yet have, but strove to acquire in the four weeks of the rehearsals.  Laughable now. It took physical endurance and extreme mental agility to find connections where there didn’t seem  any connecting the text from the end of one beat to the beginning of the next. I remember the pride of being able to learn the lines and the fear of not being able to remember them when I needed to. I remember the joy of taking on a project for which I was monumentally ill-suited. The warm feeling that my teacher, a smart, witty, and well-read adult, had enough faith in my abilities to try something so that we could have “a positive learning outcome.” Hell, it was like winning the educational lottery.

Flash forward to Los Angeles, 36 years later. I sat in the theatre, next to my husband, felt the usual frisson when the house lights faded before the play began, listened to the sounds of someone getting into the beautifully designed and painted mound. (Takeshi Kata did the set.) Lights up, (thank you Tom Ontiveros!) , and there she was, Winnie, in all her glory. Brooke Adams seemed illuminated from within. Her 150-watt smile and can-do attitude was inspiring. What made the play so moving was  simple. She made it plausible that even though buried to her waist in dirt, she would survive and happily so. The simple daily objects she pulled from her bag were talismans of her optimism. Willie was still there, within range of her voice; talking to someone who occasionally responded brought her joy.

And though I can’t remember what “Happy Days” meant to me as a seventeen or eighteen-year-old,  today, the play was about aging. Beckett’s  portrayal of a powerful woman freeing herself from  prison of a mound of dirt with just her mind and her love was moving and funny and familiar. We take for granted our bodies when we are young, and our worlds become more closely circumscribed as our anatomy ages and fails. And in spite of that, our humanity affords us the ability to greet each day generously and with love and joy just as Winnie does.

I thought  today about our niece who lost her husband of 44 years a week ago and  in a week’s time. I thought about how Winnie would be able to go on without Willie. I thought about how someday I will have to go on without my darling husband. And on stage, we saw that terror and uncertainty and fear in Winnie’s eyes.  And we saw her recover again and again.

Ah yes, if only I could bear to be alone, I mean prattle away with not a soul to hear.
Not that I flatter myself you hear much, no Willie, God forbid.
Days perhaps when you hear nothing. But days too when you answer.
So that I may say at all times (even when you do not answer and perhaps hear
nothing) something of this is being heard. I am not merely talking to myself.
That is, in the wilderness. Something I could never bear to do – for any length of time.
That is what enables me to go on, go on talking that is.
Whereas, if you were to die – or go away and leave me, then what would I do, what
could I do all day long?
Simply gaze before me with compressed lips.
Or a brief… gale of laughter, should I happen to see the old joke again.

 Winnie, “Happy Days” by Samuel Beckett

Winnie is a survivor. And while we are on this mound we call earth, we love our stuff for the comfort it brings us, and we love the other inhabitants of the mound. And if the mound and its inhabitants change, we can still survive and find  a way to express our love and joy.

Go see “Happy Days” at the Theatre at Boston Court